Bronze Ambition

Published: September 28, 2003
Categories: Reports

To start with, it’s a gorgeous statue.

Jim Henson’s sitting on a stone bench, having an animated discussion with Kermit — who’s resting a friendly hand on Jim’s wrist. It’s intimate, and touching, and it suggests that Henson’s creations have an independent existence — in our minds and hearts, at least.

The statue is placed in front of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, a quiet spot across the street from the main college green. It’s there to stay now, honoring the college’s famous alumnus, who was at UMD when he started his career in television puppetry.

The statue’s in plain view from the sidewalk, and it’s easy to imagine being a student and passing it every day on the way to class. It’s the kind of sight that you build memories around, that you come back to visit. Alumni going to their reunion will say: “Before we leave, I have to show you the Kermit statue.”

Sorry if I’m going a little soft on you here, but under the circumstances, it’s hard to avoid the lure of insta-sentimentality. The statue’s a nostalgia magnet. You just have to expect that kind of thing.

So let’s talk about Willard Scott instead.

The statue’s dedication ceremony was held on September 24th, Henson’s birthday. It was a bright sunny day, breaking a couple days of nasty rain — so, again with the sentimentality, people were saying things like, “His spirit must be here!”

A small but enthusiastic crowd assembled. The VIP’s sat in a few rows of chairs in front of the platform — the Henson family, representatives from the college and the Jim Henson Legacy, some people from the New York Henson headquarters. There were also apparently some people who worked in local Washington television at the time that Henson was starting Sam and Friends.

Standing around them was a ring of fans and UMD students. A smattering of people wore Muppet T-shirts and carried Kermit dolls. One guy, bless his heart, positioned himself prominently wearing a black “SAVE FARSCAPE” shirt.

The ceremony began with a performance by Colours, a student group from the Jim Henson School of Arts, Media and Communications at Northwestern High School — Henson’s alma mater. I didn’t know that they’d named an arts building after Henson at his old high school; that’s excellent. Colours performed “Soul Man” — which they rendered as “Soul Child,” in deference to the girls in the group — and then “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the Jeff Moss Sesame ballad “One Small Voice.” It was very sweet, very Sesame Street, to open the event with a group of kids performing.

The emcee for the event was Willard Scott, who started his career in the early 50’s at the same Washington NBC station that Henson did.

He spoke off-the-cuff about those early days, in a rambling style that was endearing, if a little challenging:

“My name is Willard Scott. I used to be a legend as Bozo the Clown, but I didn’t do much with that. I tried to convince Jim to put me on the show, but obviously he was smarter than that… I love Maryland so much, being a Virginia cracker. I went over to Hopkins and had my knees replaced about five years ago — it only cost me $39.95; it was an Earl Scheib production — but I got Hugh Downs’ old knees. They still work.

“But anyway, to be a part of this, and to be part of you, I think — and I believe we established the fact, didn’t we, correctly — that the first time I ever worked with Jim on a show was in 1953, and it was called Barn Party. Or the Mike Hunnicutt Show, whatever you prefer. Mike Hunnicutt and Betsy Stump were the stars. I was Farmer Willard, and I worked with Bert and Ernie — but, I think, Sam and Friends… Sam was the Muppet at the time. But anyway, that’s a little part of our history.

“But what a thrill it was. Everybody knew at NBC-Channel 4 that Jim had something special, and I’m not just saying this as quarterbacking on a Monday morning. The engineers, they had a fierce union, NAVD. Nobody did anything connected to audio or video that didn’t get done by a NAVD member. They would let Jim have every waiver in the world. Anything he would do — he lip-sync’d records, Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, things like that. And they would let him do anything that he wanted to do.

“The other thing that I wanted to do was wear a plaid long-sleeved shirt, because to be honest, I never saw Jim in anything but a long-sleeved plaid shirt. But I didn’t want to be tacky, because I have my friends here, so I didn’t wear my long-sleeved plaid shirt. If you would like to see it, I have it in the car, and I’ll take you later…

“The only other secret that I will tell you — and I love this, because as I tell you, we were part of a family at the station, we were all starting out — TV was brand new, we were brand new, we were 18, 19, 17 years old… Jane was 12 at the time…

“But Jane and Jim were engaged, isn’t that wonderful? [applause] … To somebody else! They weren’t engaged to each other. During this passionate engagement period for both of them — it must have been a real winner, because you see the results of what happened here, and I don’t think the other guy’s here, or the other girl — but anyway, Jim came over to school one day, and he found this coed, and… you weren’t even in puppetry at the time, what were you doing, Drama? [He looks to Jane for an answer.] Art Education! That’s a good thing. So he brought her back, and they started… All I know is, you’d see these four feet working behind this curtain, doing these things with these puppets, but something else must have gone on besides working the puppets, we never got into that. Globe Magazine called twice; I kept my mouth shut.

“But anyway, the end result is the beautiful marriage of two incredibly talented people, and two people who loved each other and have a wonderful family. That’s my basic biography.”

Isn’t that cute? He really just hopped around like that. I loved it.

Then Willard introduced C.D. Mote, Jr, the President of the college, who rambled on a bit, and I kind of tuned out. He used the words “impact,” “contributions” and “legacy” quite a bit. At the end, he referred to the statue of Jim and Kermit talking: “This will be a topic of conversation — what are they talking about? I’ve been thinking about this, and I think they’re talking about the importance of being green, and being comfortable with it. And this is an important idea for this campus, by the way, in general. So please join me in thanking the classes of 1994, 1998 and 1999, for making possible this marvelous, historic moment — this statue of Jim and Kermit, projecting the importance of being green.”

Whatever that means. Willard took the stage again, and said, “The importance of getting green, that’s what we want to do here, with the fund-raising, which we’ll do right after the show…”

I tell you, during this event, my respect for Willard Scott went up one hundred percent. He was excellent.

Then two alumni spoke — Lauren Milan and Faiz Ahmad, representing the class of ’98, who came up with the idea of raising money to create the statue. They were very cute, although Lauren had a weird habit of saying Faiz’s name a lot, as in: “Faiz, it seems like only yesterday that we were standing before our graduating class…” Apparently it was written in her script. At one point, she chirped, “That’s right, Faiz!” She must have majored in Infomercial Studies.

But the truly great performance of the event was given by UMD student Tim Daly, the president of the Student Government Association, who began his speech this way: “Thanks, everybody, for coming out today. It’s great to see so many members of our whole entire campus community here for today’s event!”

We all knew a Tim Daly in college, didn’t we? Well, this is what he had to say about Jim:

“My name is Tim Daly, and I’m the Student Government Association president here — and just like Jim Henson, I am not originally from Maryland. Jim was from Mississippi, and I was from upstate New York, but both of us have started to make Maryland — he already did make Maryland his home, and I’ve started to as well.

“Thinking about Jim Henson’s legacy, it’s very ironic that I’m here today on behalf of the university to welcome this statue being here. When I was growing up in upstate New York, I was a big Muppet Babies fan — and the day that Jim Henson passed away, unfortunately, I remember that I actually didn’t go out and play with my friends that day, and I made the conscious decision that in memorial, I was going to stay in and watch the Muppet Babies.

“And it’s a true story, and now, years later, it hits home to me that I’m here to be part of today’s ceremony.”

That is kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Moving on. Willard took the stage again, with this memorable introduction for Jane:

“I don’t know, if Jim Henson hadn’t, I would have, so… [looking at the Henson kids] — I mean, I could’ve been your dad. Nothing personal, but… Frightening thought, isn’t it? I love her so much, and everybody that ever worked with her loved her so much… and as I say, the joy and the fun and the pleasure that they as a couple brought NBC…

“In the really early days of TV, if somebody swatted a fly, back in those days, they would do a documentary — Stu Finley would do a twelve-part series — and that was television. And that’s what it’s all about. So, I don’t want to make you sound, you know, over 21, but you’re a pioneer in this industry, and what you all did to contribute, and what you still do to contribute, with your love and your warmth and your good, beautiful personality.

“And what, I only see you once every three or four years — a fond embrace, a grope, a grab, whatever, I… [laugh from the audience] In my time, we could grope a little! Let’s be honest. If the gropee was willing, the groper was all right… They’re not taping this, are they?

“My dear friend, Joan — uh, Jean… ha. Jane Henson, ladies and gentlemen.”

Then Jane stepped up to the podium, and Willard got a nice fond embrace. Here’s Jane’s remarks:

“Wow — this is really such an honor! This is so fun — to see Willard again and talk about the times when we started… You know, we knew Adele Stamp when she was a woman, and not a building. She was here, and Jim took a silk-screening class, and came and did a silk-screening business right here in the same student union, so he’s very much a part of this.

“Jim made Kermit when he was 18, and he was just between high school and college at the time, so he was part of Northwestern. He lived in College Park, and went to school at Northwestern High School — and last year, they named the Arts School in honor of Jim Henson, and now the statue is going up here… and it’s a very, very fitting place, and a wonderful statue.

“Of course, today, I think the most special person of the day is Jay Hall Carpenter, because he’s been working so hard on this beautiful statue, and we were so pleased with it. It’s such a joy working with him, and he did it all here in Maryland — in Frederick, and in Gaithersburg, and lot of his sculptures are part of the cathedral in Washington, so it’s all very local, and that’s wonderful too.

“Let’s see… What else is there to talk about? I do feel like Jim was a very, very special part of the mid-twentieth century… The culture of the 50’s was a very significant time, and I think his work spoke a lot for the early times in television, and the playfulness that we were all about. I think that his thoughts and the way he felt about life, and the way he expressed his joy and tenderness about life, through his puppets and through his work on television, was very special to the mid-twentieth century, and I think will live on as that, as very expressive of that period of time.”

Jane then introduced her four children who attended — Brian, Lisa, Cheryl and Heather — and they joined her on stage, along with Jay Hall Carpenter, Willard and Dr Mote. They unveiled the statue, everybody clapped, and that was pretty much the end of the whole shebang.

They gave out cupcakes decorated with green icing and little Elmo faces, to celebrate Jim’s birthday, and then people posed for photos with the statue. It was a lovely, warm event, and everybody seemed charmed and happy to be there.

After the ceremony, we went over to the UMD’s Hornbake Library, where they’re running an exhibit of original Jim Henson artwork from the Jim Henson’s Designs and Doodles exhibit. The exhibit’s got design sketches and promotional artwork from early Henson productions, and there’s some nice surprises, pieces that aren’t included in the Designs and Doodles book.

Part of the display are four original Henson puppets — Sam, Yorick and Harry from Sam and Friends, and Pierre the French Rat from The Junior Morning Show. Pierre the Rat is the oldest surviving Henson puppet — and I don’t remember ever even seeing a picture of him, so it’s a real treat to go and see him in person. They also have a TV set with a compilation tape of Henson documentary footage. The exhibit will be running through December 19th.

If you’re going to be the DC area, it’s worth a trip. The statue is a very nice Muppet Fan photo op, and the exhibit is definitely worth seeing. Check out the University of Maryland website for directions, and information on the statue. Together, the statue and the exhibit are a fitting tribute to Henson’s early years, in the place where it all started.

by Danny Horn

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